UN Human Rights Council back to work with US seat empty

Allies express disappointment at US decision to pull out over ‘chronic bias against Israel,’ but a diplomat says it could be a ‘big bang’ that induces reforms

The US nameplate is photographed one day after the United States announced its withdrawal at the 38th session of the UN Human Rights Council at the UN headquarters in Geneva on June 20, 2018. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)
The US nameplate is photographed one day after the United States announced its withdrawal at the 38th session of the UN Human Rights Council at the UN headquarters in Geneva on June 20, 2018. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

The UN’s Human Rights Council resumed work Wednesday after a US pullout over what it said was “chronic bias against Israel” that one Western diplomat called a “big bang” for the Geneva body, as Russia blasted the move by the Trump administration and key allies expressed disappointment.

Many countries claimed that the latest Trump move to snub yet another international institution was a sign that the US was jettisoning its reputation as a key defender of human rights and self-inflicting a blow to its international image.

They expressed support for the council, flaws and all, and vowed its work will go on.

“We have lost a member who has been at the forefront of liberty for generations,” Julian Braithwaite, Britain’s ambassador in Geneva, told the council. “While we agree with the US on the need for reform, our support for this Human Rights Council remains steadfast.”

Russia blasted the US decision, calling it “boorish” and saying Washington had “inflicted a powerful blow to its human rights reputation.” Russia’s UN mission said in a statement that the US exit from the council reflected Washington’s unilateralist approach to global affairs.

The US withdrawal is unprecedented in the 12-year history of the 47-member council — no country has ever dropped out voluntarily. Libya was kicked out seven years ago.

The US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, announced the pullout Tuesday, calling the body “a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.”

Haley said the US had given the human rights body “opportunity after opportunity” to make changes. She criticized the council for “its chronic bias against Israel,” pointing out that it includes accused human rights abusers such as China, Cuba, Venezuela and Congo.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on as US Ambassador to the United Nation Nikki Haley speaks at the US Department of State in Washington DC on June 19, 2018.(AFP Photo/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)

The Geneva-based body was established in 2006 to promote and protect human rights worldwide, but its pronouncements and reports have often infuriated the US — in particular, the council’s relentless focus on Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.

Defending the move, US national security adviser John Bolton said Wednesday “we don’t need advice by the UN or other international bodies on how to govern ourselves.”

Bolton told Fox News the decision was made by US President Donald Trump weeks ago.

On Wednesday, the US chair sat empty as discussion turned to summary executions, freedom of expression, the rights of migrants and violence against women among other things.

The United States’ term on the council was set to end next year, and it could have remained a non-voting observer on the council. But a US official said after Haley’s announcement that it was a “complete withdrawal” and that the United States was resigning its seat “effective immediately.”

The US pullout leaves the council without one of its traditional defenders of human rights. Just two days ago, American representatives were still taking part by condemning issues like constraints on civil society in Egypt and curbs on a free press in Bahrain.

One Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said the US was notably absent from an informal backroom meeting that it might normally have attended. He said the US walkout could be a “big bang” to help prod reform at the council.

Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu praises security services in video clip, on June 17, 2018. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office called the US decision “courageous,” saying it was “an unequivocal statement that enough is enough.”

But envoys from Australia, the European Union and China — a frequent target of US criticism over Beijing’s rights record — used a break in the council’s regular work to express disappointment and regret. President Borut Pahor of Slovenia — the home country of US first lady Melania Trump — said the American withdrawal was “bad news” for “everybody” who cares about human rights.

In Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova criticized what she described as Washington’s “boorish cynicism in stubbornly refusing to recognize its own human rights problems while trying to tailor the council to its political interests.”

The Chinese government also expressed regret over Washington’s decision. In Beijing, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the council is “an important platform” for countries to discuss human rights and that Beijing has been committed to supporting the group’s work.

But the Chinese government is often accused by Western countries of human rights violations and by rights groups of seeking to undermine the mechanisms of the council. In March, a Chinese diplomat repeatedly interrupted a speech by a prominent Chinese dissident to block him from addressing the UN Human Rights Council, a failed attempt that bared China’s sensitivity on human rights.

The foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, dismissed the US criticism that the council is problematic because it includes China and other authoritarian governments, saying that claim is “a total disregard of facts.”

The US pullout extends a broader Trump administration pattern of stepping back from international agreements and forums under the president’s “America First” policy. Although numerous officials have said repeatedly that “America First does not mean America Alone,” the administration has retreated from multiple multilateral accords and consensuses since it took office.

Since January 2017, it has announced its withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, left the UN educational and cultural organization — also citing anti-Israel bias — and pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. Other contentious moves have included slapping tariffs on steel and aluminum against key trading partners, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there from Tel Aviv.

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